Reflections on Japan

I’ve been back in the States for a few days now and I’ve been meaning to1 write a little something reflecting back on the trip; however with jet lag and what not2, I’ve been a bit too tired to write anything up. Since I received a friendly reminder about it from AWelkin; I figure I better hurry up and write something. First off, let’s get the gushy fan-boyishness out of the way. Going to Japan was an amazing experience and something that I am very glad that I had the opportunity to do. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, here are some of the impressions that I’m left with from my visit to Japan.

Nishi Kasai (the district/suburb of Tokyo we stayed in for the first week) was very similar to most any large city that you’d go to, except in places where it wasn’t. Most of the streets I saw during my stay in Nishi Kasai were narrow and oddly clean. For being part of Tokyo, one of the biggest citites in the world, I expected a much larger amount of trash to accumulate in the gutters and down the side streets. During my stay, I rarely noticed any trash littering the streets and that usually was just a couple of cigarette butts or the very rare soda can. I see more trash littering streets in my hometown everyday than I think I saw during my entire week in Nishi Kasai. The other thing about Nishi Kasai that surprised me was how green it was there. I mean, it’s part of Tokyo and they’ve got trees and bushes all over the place. In particular, right next to TCA there was something that kind of resembled a park. It divided the street in half, was lined with trees and in one part had what I think was a rice paddy. While the rest of it was paved, had benches and a small wading area for kids (or a good place for the adults to dip their feet).

Of course, it wasn’t all greenery there; there were plenty of buildings all over the place. Some where towering monstrosities of concrete; while others were traditional Japanese houses made of wood. There was a convenience store on partically every corner, though normal grocery stores were a bit harder to find. This reminds me of another thing about Japan that seems odd to me now; zoning ordinances. I don’t know if they just don’t have any, if they’re lot less strict than American ones or what, but you could be walking down a street and it would shift from stores to houses to stores to apartments in a blink of an eye. If you’re like me and don’t read kanji; this means you can never be entirely sure if the building you are looking at is somebody’s house or their business or both or something else entirely.

Speaking of confusion, it is my understanding that the average Japanese person has several more years of schooling in English than the average American has schooling in any foreign language, but I have to wonder if they really understand English sometimes. For instance one day while walking around Nishi Kasai; I spotted a young Japanese girl wearing a green t-shirt that said “daddy” across the wrong of it. I’ve also seen other Japanese girls wearing t-shirts and tanktops that promote PlayBoy magazine. I really have to wonder if those ladies have any idea of what their clothing was promoting. Of course, I can’t be too judgemental about their shirts. I’ve got one with some characters that sort of look like kanji, but I have no idea what they mean either3.

Speaking of kanji reminds me of the only thing that really hit me as a bad bit of culture shock. Towards the end of our first week there; we visited a store called Mandrake. It’s this massive multistory geek shopping area, with used manga, anime cells, toys, costumes, etc… I’d been browsing through some of the manga; just trying to find something with cool artwork or maybe even just a really nice artbook and after I’d been in there a while all the multicolored kanji on the spines of the manga started to blend together and spin around a bit. It was extremely disorienting and is one of the reasons I didn’t much like going to Mandrake or really any bookstore while I was in Japan. Normally, I love going into bookstores and just browsing around; but since I don’t read any kanji it was painful for me to go in and see all these books I couldn’t read. Fortunately, you don’t have to be able to read kanji to get around Tokyo or really any of the areas we visited. Signs in English were all over the place and we were traveling as a group. So we almost always had either AWelkin or Keki-san or some other person who was fluent in Japanese along to help us out.

On the other hand, I think having all that help wasn’t entirely good for the class because it seemed several people would do everything they could to avoid having to speak Japanese themselves. We had 3 half-days of Japanese lessons from Sato-sensai and some people appeared to speak Japanese fairly well in class but then would suddenly lose all their Japanese skills once they left Sato-sensai’s class. I know my Japanese was very weak; but by the end of the trip, I could:

  • introduce myself
  • tell somebody what one of my hobbies was
  • order my own food (if I could point at it, already knew what it was called or somebody could tell me what it was called)
  • complain that the weather was hot4

I don’t know if that meant was I more independent/confident/foolish than my fellow students but it seemed to me that we were not in the U.S. so we should make every effort to speak the native language of the country we were in. This is just something that seemed to me as a basic form of courtesy that we could do for our “host country”.

Courtesy was another thing that I noticed and liked about Japan. People were nice to each other all over the place whether they knew one another or not. People would say sumimasen (excuse me/sorry/please) and arigatoo gozaimasu (thank you) at the drop of a hat; while back here in the States, it sometimes seems like you have to pratically save somebody’s life before they’ll say thank you.

Ok, enough already about what I did like; what didn’t I like? Well… their milk tasted a bit off from what I’m used to and rice cakes at breakfast time got old fast5. Also the heat was nearly unbearable and bonking my head in doorways was annoying. But none of those were major issues really, probably the biggest thing that would have annoyed me would be their attitude towards schedules. We were pretty heavily insulated from this thanks to AWelkin’s efforts but given some of the things we talked about over dinner that first night back; I get the impression that the Japanese do not view schedules as something you really set in stone (like we silly Americans do). It seems to me that they felt it was perfectly ok to rearrange the schedules at a moments notice and continue to arrange them until they were happy about it; without ever realizing that the silly foreigners were likely to get stressed about it (which we did, frequently). Still I was pretty well insulated from that so it wasn’t too bad. Probably the number one thing about Japan that disturbed me were their cemeteries; specifically those areas set aside for children who’d died. Usually, I’d see these with little statues (of a standing Buddha?, not sure need to ask AWelkin about that) with knitted bonnets and/or a bib. According to one discussion, I’d had with AWelkin about these statues6; the Japanese feel a need to honor all of their dead, including those children that died young, at birth, were aborted and what not. I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all, as to me that seems to display a deep and abiding respect for life but seeing the children’s section of the cemeteries disturbed me on some fundamental level. It’s rather hard to describe; there was a sense of “this is really creepy” but overlaid with a sense of deep sadness. *shudder* Thinking about those parts of Japan still creeps me out a bit.

As this was my first trip outside of the U.S. (and the first plane ride that I can remember going on); I did end up learning a few things about myself:

  • I can handle riding in a plane just fine, even in coach, but I’d rather be up front so I know when the plane is going to dip or turn and perhaps won’t be quite so put out by turbulence.
  • With proper motivation, I can learn other languages fairly quickly. Note that I didn’t say well or in depth; just quickly.
  • I’m still oblvious to flirting7.
  • As worldly as I might want to appear to others; I get too big a kick out of being a tourist to not stop and stare at (or take pictures of) things that interest me.
  • I enjoy traveling immensely.

1 Translation: The final project of the course was to write one last journal entry talking about the trip and what the trip made me learn about myself.
2 Switching from U.S. time to Japan time was easy, switching back has been brutal and probably wasn’t helped by giving blood yesterday.
3 I wore it during the homestay and Makoto-san didn’t know what they meant either. At least, he said he didn’t know but that could have been just him being nice and not telling me that it said something stupid or vulgar. *sigh* I have really need to learn how to read kanji!
4 It took me a few days to pick that one up and I really only got it after a bit of help from KO, but I ended up using it a lot!
5 Though I loved having the miso soup every day, yum!
6 The one where I found out they were for children.
7 AWelkin said that some of the art instructors were flirting with me during class. Ariesna has mentioned before that she’s noticed other girls flirting with me. *shrug* I still don’t really know what either one is talking about.

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Oh yeah, I was just over reading the Cash and Credit post on mediatinker and it reminded me of another thing about Japan that was really different from here in the U.S. As mediatinker points out in the U.S. you can pay for darn near everything with a debit/credit card but in Japan that’s the expection rather than the norm. In Japan, cash is king and frankly I like it better that way. Also, in Japan I was regularly walking around with a couple hundred bucks in my wallet (roughly ¥20,000) and it didn’t bother me. While back here in the U.S. the idea of walking around with more than about $50 seems to be a scary proposition. I’m not entirely sure why that is. But if I had to guess; I’d say it has to do with years of advertizing by the credit card companies telling us that carrying their cards is safer than carrying cash.

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